I intend it to be the sort of book I like to read, which means one with a map and drawings, and talk on every page and not one with long descriptions about the sun's early rays touching the feathery beech-tips with gold and gossamer quivering in the dew, because I think dew is soppy and anyway I'm usually still asleep when all that sort of thing is going on.
Nearly 13-year old February Callendar, from the book
John’s life falls conveniently into four parts. Born on 30 September 1913 at 12 Connaught Place, Bayswater, London, John set off for India on 11 December when only ten weeks old. He spent his earliest years in a whirl of travel. After a brief trip to visit his father in Rawal Pindi, where Ralph served with the Rifle Brigade, John continued his tour at the end of March 1914. His next destination was Wallaroy, New South Wales on a social call to meet his maternal grandparents. He stayed with various relations in Brisbane and Sydney before cruising back to England via America. Before his first birthday, John had visited four continents and sailed around the world in grand style.
In 1916, Lord Chelmsford, the Viceroy of India, appointed Ralph as his Military Secretary. John, joined by his new sister, Joscelyne, travelled to Viceregal Lodge in Simla, Northern India where he stayed for the next five years. 1918 saw the arrival of his brother, David. In 1920, another trip to Australia interrupted his idyllic Indian life. In 1922, Lord Chelmsford retired, John returned to England and London, and school beckoned. Summer Fields Prep School near St Leonards-on-Sea, Eton College and Christ Church, Oxford took John to 1935, when he studied at the Architectural Association School (A.A.). There, John considered a career in architecture and dabbled with acting. For three years he worked at MGM, learning to direct films until in 1939, John eschewed everything to marry his ‘Liebling’, Lucinda, and follow his dream of becoming a professional artist.
John at Eton c 1925
Photo Carola Symington
Major John Verney, MC, 1st Airborne, 2 SAS
Photo Sebastian Verney
Part two of John’s life followed—serving in the Second World War. Second Lieutenant Verney signed up with the North Somerset Yeomanry, riding into battle on his horse. Captain Verney parachuted into Sardinia and blew up planes with the Special Boat Squadron, before being captured and escaping. John detailed his exploits in two of his books, ‘Going to the Wars’, (1955) and its sequel, ‘A Dinner of Herbs’, (1966). These ‘autobiographical tales’ offer his story from his point of view, told more as pictures of army life through eyes shaded with predictable humility. My research revealed the real horror of the war and the courageous part John played (even if his magnum opus for the SBS was described as ‘a shambles’). He received the Military Cross for his exploits in 1943.
John established a base at Runwick House, Farnham, Surrey in 1944, where he first met his four-year-old son. In the same year, he met Paddy Mayne of the SAS and discussed the future of the special services. Working with the 1st Airborne, Major Verney helped plan D Day, and in 1945, he crossed the Rhine with the SAS as a Staff Officer in the liberating army.
After the war, he followed a new life in Farnham. Starting the period as a family man, John became a noted illustrator and artist, creating covers for ‘Collins Magazine for Boys and Girls’, which morphed into the ‘Young Elizabethan’ in 1953. Slowly, he established himself as an artist, then an author, before embarking on a broader role in society. During the 1960s, John turned his interest to the preservation of historic buildings. As a founding member of the Farnham Building Preservation Trust, and always aided by his supremely competent wife, Jan, the couple was influential in saving the Farnham Maltings. In practice, Jan played as large a part in building conservation as John. Then in 1968, John became an Independent councillor on the Farnham Urban District Council.
His family grew up around him. John’s children, in their turn, went to public schools, with a short hiatus in Florence, Italy. As they started to marry, go to university and move away, the big house at Runwick emptied.
Exhibition of Painted Furniture
Photo Peeps into the Past
John with his housekeeper, Joyce Cooper
Photo Archant Community Media
The fourth and final part of John’s story came after his move to The White House, Clare in Suffolk, in 1977, when John was 63. Jan decided she wanted to move to a new town, where she could become the captain of her own destiny and open an antique shop. Although John was not initially in favour of the move, he agreed to her wishes for the sake of a non-confrontational life. Suffolk suited him with its distinctive, East Anglian light which brought a refreshed interest in painting. Life became a social one but based around a new group of friends, rather than a never-ending list of causes and societies. John’s time was more for him and less for the community, although he did take on an occasional trustee or chairman’s role. Jan organised dinner and garden parties, which John attended if slightly begrudgingly.
But, to the end, John never lost his love of chatting with ordinary people … including dustmen….